The speed with which Twitter was banned in Nigeria, just two days after censoring President Buhari’s tweet, has to be the fastest solution ever implemented by the present administration. Even in the thread of the contentious tweets that raised the alarm of Twitter’s “abusive behaviour”policy, Buhari warned that he had given the insurgent members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) “enough time”—as though it’s wise to let a problem that dangerous thrive unsolved. But the government’s resort to banning Twitter, instead of engaging it for mutual understanding, is a calculatedly impulsive action. It frightens that such a life-altering decision was taken without measuring the consequences, especially for the vastly unemployed youths whose livelihoods are sustained by the influential social networking platform.
The loud silence from the National Assembly, the branch of government designed to check the President, has further justified the essence of an independent institution to check this emergence of a self-styled emperor. Social media has since taken the place of the legislature in checking the excesses of the Executive branch of the government, and this makes it function as the fourth branch of government. It’s also unlikely for the legislature to have the ban reversed because that’s squarely the dream of the majority there; the desire to be saved from scrutinies, some of which are understandably malicious.
Since December 2015, when Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah introduced the Frivolous Petitions Bill, officially referred to as “An act to prohibit frivolous petitions; and other matters connected therewith,” Nigerian lawmakers have been in a contest to neutralize the threat of the social media. The bills all intend to frustrate transparency and complicate the processes of complaining about public services and graft. But, beyond the backlash among Nigerians, most of the arguments of those pushing for the restrictions have their concerns answered in various extant laws.
Senator David Umaru, as chairman of the Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters of the Senate, said, in shutting down Senator Na’Allah’s bill in 2016, that “most of the provisions of the bill had already been covered by other extant laws of the federation and could not be duplicated.” This, and persistent public outrage, had stalled what Buhari just hastily executed. But, contrary to the claim, it’s not that one tweet that instigated the decision; it’s the government’s sustained anger over Twitter founder, Jack’s role in legitimizing the #EndSARS protests in October 2020, providing a safe space for “insurrection” or, more accurately, threatening regime security.
On the day Buhari’s tweet was removed, however, the story wasn’t entirely his doing. It was the doing of whoever managed his Twitter account, and the attempt to transcribe the President’s speech was a gross misrepresentation. In the video, he spoke against the killings of the police and arms infiltration in the Southeast and was more specific about the subject of his anger. But his Twitter dropped the grenade without context, and what it shattered was a memory we had been struggling to appease.
“Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War,” the tweet read. “Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.” Without a context, this would’ve been a stern warning to the “unknown gunmen” who were turning the Southeast into a killing field. But there’s a history behind it, and that tweet was everything but sensitive.
There’s a reason the then Head of State, Yakubu Gowon, wanted us to remember the civil war as one with neither victors nor vanquished. The fact that even Buhari’s principals then agreed to call it a war with no winner just to calm frayed nerves, is enough to not cite it as proof of some victory or reduce it to the actions of these caricatures who fool themselves around Nnamdi Kanu. They are two entirely different events, despite originating from the same place, and should be remembered, interpreted and handled differently.
Buhari’s tweet was, unfortunately, a mocking reminder that the war was, contrary to the agreement then, a victory and well-taught lesson in which fluent language of violence was spoken to decimate the rebels. But the Igbo who rebelled against the Nigerian state about three decades ago shouldn’t be qualified as one with the Nnamdi Kanu-led IPOB, and it’s this reckless resort to waking the ghosts of Biafra to make that point that’s led us to this chaos of perspectives.
The government has been losing the public relations war, especially since the #EndSARS protests, and that’s why its opposers, including the very IPOB it’s proscribed as a terrorist organization, haven’t been written off by the foreign media and leaders. Because, when the outside world gaze at Nigeria as it stands today, what they see are: a government that’s barricaded Unity Fountain and tear-gassed the Aisha Yesufus away from protest ground; a government that justified shooting of live rounds at protesters; a government that serially refuse arrested citizens bails granted by the courts of competent jurisdiction; a government that hire thugs to disrupt peaceful protests. The list is long. The government has had a series of bad optics and Twitter wasn’t unaware.
And Nnamdi Kanu, contrary to the claim that he’s being tolerated and glorified by Nigeria’s “enemies”, was actually suspended on Facebook. In early 2020, the IPOB leader posted a video of a militia, suspected to be the Eastern Security Network he set up, attacking and killing cattle in a herders’ settlement. “We removed Nnamdi Kanu’s page,” a Facebook spokesman told BBC Igbo, “for repeatedly posting content that break those Community Standards, including content that violated our rules on coordinating harm and hate speech.” The truth is, no matter their take on the Nigerian government, Twitter too should’ve long given the hate-promoting Kanu the Facebook treatment.
Twitter, alternatively, could’ve been made to understand the enemy in what seems unclear to it. To say the government that was high-handed in cracking down on defenceless protesters during the #EndSARS protests—which was the period more foreign interests took interest in Nigeria’s local affairs—isn’t the enemy, requires more than Lai Mohammed’s threats. There were several opportunities for the government to redeem itself, and playing the tough guy and citing national security threats to justify an unrealistic ban won’t attract the sympathy it seeks. Nigerians are already downloading VPN applications to access Twitter “illegally,” illegal because the Attorney-General, Abubakar Malami, had threatened to have those who access it after the ban prosecuted.
Evidently, Nigeria is going to lose the public relations war, along with its legitimacy before those it begs for arms, loans, assistance and aid. A government that’s incapable of neutralizing bandits and terrorists in marked and known locations should be wary of pushing more resentful citizens out of sight. How do you fight or appease the enemy you don’t hear or see coming?